Dear Kids, There’s a story behind the candles on my cake tonight. Lopsided, mismatched, but clearly spelling out my age–41–even though I can barely believe I’m older than 25. Where did the time go? It was your nanny, Patricia, who frosted the chocolate cake today and fished the numbered candles out of the box that holds the birthday stuff: cute gift bags, rumpled tissue paper, a package of smashed bows. I have this box now because I have you two–because you two are invited to a parade of birthday parties that require me to wrap presents at the drop of a hat on any given weekend. Of course I didn’t wrap my own presents today. Your dad did that, with lots of “helping” from you guys. It was fun to see your faces, expectant and waiting, as I ripped into the paper to open my gifts. I never knew if I was going to have children.
All the hubbub this month has been about Star Wars, and with good reason. The world has been waiting for a great sequel to the original Star Wars films, and the new movie delivers. It has great pacing, impressive skyfights, a dazzling light saber duel, and a female star who gets to do a lot more than wear a gold bikini. But amid all the excitement over Star Wars these days, I can’t forget my first geeky sci-fi love, one that takes place not in a galaxy far, far away, but in our very own solar system a few hundred years into the future. From the very first time I was allowed to stay up late and watch an episode of the original Star Trek with my dad in syndication on a small TV with a floppy antenna, I was hooked. In the episode, a tall, sinister alien roams underground caves on a faraway planet and kills its victims by sucking all the salt out of their bodies. What nine-year-old kid wouldn’t love that?! As it happens, my first introduction to Star Trek took place at the same time I was being introduced to expat living. In 1984 we were enjoying an “exchange summer” in England made possible by my father’s job as a minister with the United Methodist Church. In a transatlantic switcheroo, my dad exchanged jobs with a minister in England, along with our houses, cars, and even pets. For one summer we were able to live as the locals did, in a small town in southeast England called Chandler’s Ford, while an English minister and his family enjoyed the Arizona desert town […] Read More
If you live abroad with your family, there’s almost no way to avoid one of the most exhausting expat experiences: long international flights with children. Even adults find these hauls grueling, so attempting them with small, smelly, stir-crazy little kids requires another level of stamina and some good preparation. First of all, if you are making that kind of journey with children for the first time, make sure you get advice from the right people. The experiences of your friends and co-workers who have traveled long flights without kids or who have taken their kids on short hops are useless to you. That is like taking advice about how to survive prison from someone who was stuck in driving school for an afternoon. Don’t worry: I am no such rookie. Some parents teach their kids to floss and tie their shoes. I teach my kids how to pack a tight carry-on and smile at the passport control officer. I have flown three of the top 10 longest flights in the world with children and have lived (sometimes barely) to tell the tale. I’ve had good flights and bad flights, and one flight from Johannesburg to Dubai with my toddler that was so terrible I turned around and went back to Africa rather than continue on any farther. So here are my top 10 tips to help you learn from my mistakes and survive the flight with your kids and your sanity intact:
Okay, I’ll say it: I’ve gotten lazy. After I was asked in May to be a contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s expat blog (I’m doing a “Ten Things” about living overseas feature for them), I let my normal blogging here at Outlandish slip. My full time job, 10-month-old baby, preschooler, life maintenance, and travel schedule of four countries in the last three months may also have had something to do with it but no excuses, dear readers! So here I am, back after a whirlwind winter of travel in both hemispheres, relieved that I have no plans to be on an airplane until 2016 and have nothing but the normal business of making a life for myself and my family in Botswana to take up my time. To say hello again, I’m plunging right in with a questionnaire given to me by Tara over at Mama Mgeni, who kindly nominated me for a Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award.
What’s the last thing you want to do four weeks before your due date in the heat of an African summer when you are slow and lumbering as a beached whale and only want to lie on the couch under a fan eating squares of cooling dark chocolate? Get in the car and drive for 20 hours across the desert! Too bad: we don’t have a choice. And so today begins the grand adventure, a roadtrip from land-locked Botswana to the salty beaches of Cape Town, South Africa, 1,500 kilometers away, so we can usher Baby #2 into the world with style.
One of the cool things about living in Pakistan is that you are smack in the middle of South Asia. What this means is that if you want to get away for a few days to celebrate a friend’s birthday, you can easily jet off to the Himalayas, Dubai, Thailand, or Sri Lanka. Dubai is boring unless you like wandering around cavenous, freezing malls containing only stores you can’t afford. The Himalayas are awesome but you are definitely going to be delayed by an extra day or two when you try to return (due to “weather” “overbooking” or “computer problems”: thanks PIA), and Thailand is a dream but was hit by severe rains a couple weeks ago. That left Sri Lanka! Our group of three cancelled our tickets for flooded Koh Samui and made new ones for Colombo with only four days to spare. We got hotels, ordered taxis, packed our beach bags, and in one short flight from Karachi we were there. The trip was special because I will be leaving Pakistan in two weeks and returning to the U.S. My job has finally ended and it’s time to go. I hope that I will be back, but for now it is goodbye, and goodbyes always make me sad. So I couldn’t pass up the chance to go away with two of my best friends that I made over the last two years here. I also found out I don’t get any compensation for unused vacation days: perfect time to go! We stayed one night in busy, bustling Colombo that didn’t seem all that different from Lahore or Karachi but offered a gorgeous […] Read More
(15 days ago) My two-week vacation to Vietnam drawing to an end, I take a slow, bumpy car ride past hoards of motorbikes and market stalls of dragon fruit to the capital city of Hanoi, with the taxi driver honking his horn every 20 to 30 seconds the entire 4 hour trip. Luckily it is a pleasant, jaunty trill that sounds like a little song to wake birds up. I need to get back to the big city so I can… (14 days ago) …Spend the entire day at the Pakistani Embassy in Hanoi. This is just as boring as you would imagine, and does not result in the visa back to Pakistan I was hoping for so I have to… (12 days ago) …Head to Saigon for one last day feverish day of shopping, sightseeing, and a relaxing massage and mud wrap to prepare me to… (11 days ago) …Get on a plane to Doha, Qatar and spend a day in the Middle East just killing time before I… (10 days ago) …Board yet another plane for a 14-hour flight to Washington DC since I have no visa for Pakistan and am not in the mood to be detained at the airport in Islamabad upon arrival. In addition to being extremely bummed by this, I also decide to concentrate on the positives, which include me getting to… (9 days ago) …Spend two days in DC seeing fun people, eating great food, and applying for a new visa before I… (7 days ago) …Hop on a plane to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Palm Springs and… (3 days ago) …Drive up to Santa Barbara […] Read More
So I’m in the U.S. for the next few weeks before I return to Islamabad on June 1. The last month or so of work was insanely busy, which was why I didn’t get it together to post a new blog since celebrating my one-year anniversary with Pakistan. It was definitely time for a break. Living in another country where just about every single thing is different than you’re used to is tiring in a very specific, particular way, and the only method of finding relief is to get away for a little while. I’m most excited about the food. It’s crazy how much I miss things like avocados, blackberries, Fage yogurt, and whole wheat hamburger buns. I went to Trader Joe’s within one hour of landing in DC, mostly just to wander the aisles, mouth agape, before picking up items from the aforementioned list, as well as pumpkin granola, an adorable bag of clementines, and butternut squash. The next few weeks are not so much a “vacation” as they are a time to recover, regroup, and get refreshed for returning to my stint in a foreign country. Exercise is super important, as is a lot of sleep, good eating, and good conversation with a few friends. So I want to apologize right now, in advance, for the fact that I will not be seeing most of you while I’m in the States. There just isn’t time, unless I want to turn my relaxing break into a breakneck social whirlwind, which my energy levels cannot afford at the moment. The trip here was a little bumpy, which refers not only to a very turbulent flight […] Read More
Here is a list of great places to go away for a weekend trip: the Hamptons. Cape Cod. Santa Barbara. Hilton Head. Mackinaw Island. Miami. You will notice that Kabul, Afghanistan is not on that list. But I’m all about experiencing a little adventure, and I already live in Pakistan, so when I got the chance to go to Kabul, I thought…Afghanistan: can’t be that much more dangerous than Pakistan, right? An opportunity came up to go to check out a development project for the weekend, so I took it. I mean, you can handle anything for a year…would it really be so hard to live here? (Also, it is hard for me not to try anything once.) Everything went fine for the first 16 hours or so of my trip: I met a lot of nice people at the compound, I had a nice lamb dinner, I went out for martinis at a bar called “Martinis.” (Not so much with the inventive names here, apparently.) I saw some cool huge Afghan dogs, everyone was paying for things in American dollars, which I hadn’t seen for months, and there were tons of expats running around looking like they were having fun. It made it a little easier to overlook all the barbed wire. After getting to bed not so early, I was awakened at 6:30 in the morning by what sounded like the loudest crack of thunder I have ever heard in my life. I am never great in the morning at the best of times, but this rude awakening in a foreign country and unfamiliar bed (and the smoky smell) left me even more […] Read More
I can now report back to all of you that I have found the place in the world where you can buy anything. It’s the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok, and it’s amazing. I spent 5 hours there the other day, and I can confidently say I probably saw about 10% of it. Prized items in my haul include: a super cool string of lantern lights for the terrace, candles in the shape of orchids, a woven purse, a huge bag of saffron for about $2, a cute white linen dress for $9, enough Masaman and red curry paste to make a lot of Thai dinners, woven placements, handmade chopsticks with tiny knife and fork decorations on them (utensil irony), and a beautiful painted ceramic tea set. But those things were far from the weirdest or most exotic wares available in Chatuchak. After seeing whole stalls delivered exclusively to the following: silk flowers/snow globes filled with Disney princess dolls/life-size bronze elephant statues, I thought I had seen everything. Then I hit the “puppy” row. That’s right, an entire endless chain of stalls devoted to selling every kind of adorable, wriggling puppy available in Asia. If I thought I could sneak a dog through Pakistan customs, I would have bought one on the spot. (Not that I support keeping little puppies in cages.) Oh, and I also got to drink coconut water out of a coconut they hacked open in front of my eyes, have a surprisingly accurate cartoon of myself done in 6 minutes, and shovel down delicious pad thai from an outdoor makeshift set of “restaurants” in the center of the market that beat […] Read More
So: it’s paradise here. I know, I know–everyone told me a million times before I came: Thailand is the coolest, the best, most awesome vacation ever. But I always go into those kinds of things with a wee bit of skepticism. How can you, oh rapturous Thailand-traveler, guarantee that I will like it as much as you did? The answer is because who wouldn’t like the following: pristine beaches, fresh tropical fruit of every description, perfect sunny 75 degree weather in January, delicious spicy brothy curries and noodle soups, friendly hospitable people, easy motorbikes to rent at all hours, a continuous sweet and gentle breeze, gorgeous rolling waves, hour-long massages on the beach for $9, and all manner of other wonderful things to do at what seem like illegally low prices. I have been wanting to come to Thailand for about 10 years now. That’s about the time that Thai food became my favorite kind of food, and when photos and stories of friends’ backpacking adventures starting trickling in. (Oh shoot, and that terrible Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach.” I wish I didn’t have to count that among my influences.) One of the best things about living in Asia is how close you are to a bunch of countries that are really too far away to visit regularly from the U.S. A direct flight from Islamabad to Bangkok is under 5 hours and is fairly reasonable if you book early. Being here–not worrying about my security, not walking through metal detectors, being able to wear a dress in public, eat food from street shacks without fear of dysentery–feels like a real vacation. Pakistan is a […] Read More
I have just returned from the U.S. after spending three weeks there on my annual R&R. I can’t remember what “R&R” stands for. It’s either Rest and Recuperation, or Rest and Recreation, or Rest and Recovery, or…really I’m just not sure. At any rate, I am entitled to one per year and for sure I am not going to miss a free vacation. If you work directly for the U.S. government abroad (which I don’t), they actually make you take these trips back to the States on a frequent basis so that you don’t lose your patriotism. I would say that living in a place where you’re not allowed to walk around by yourself or wear skirts accomplishes that patriotism all by itself. The thing is though, I missed Islamabad while I was away and am happy to be back in what is starting to feel like home. After three weeks as an ex-pat in America, some observations:
No, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. I just took a vacation, had an especially crazy month of work, and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to do very simple things like 1) get rid of the ants in my kitchen and 2) figure out why the internet hasn’t worked at my house for 6 weeks. So at present I’m short any substantive update about the grooviness of life in Pakistan over the last month. But I figured at least I could show you a few vacation pics! The idea was radical: take a long weekend off in a place with no cell or functioning internet service, where no one could do work of any kind and everyone could relax. I got away from the city, gulped down a ton of fresh air, visited the highest plains in the world, and read two books front to back. After four months of working weekends, putting in more than the occasional 12-hour day, and living and breathing my job, getting away felt like a long drink of water in the desert: much needed. The only bad news is that I got trapped in the mountains and started to despair of ever returning to civilization. A ticket to Skardu will cost you about 8,000 rupees, (or 14,000 rupees if you’re an American and don’t have one of your Pakistani friends pick up the ticket for you which luckily, I did. Thanks Fahim!!) Either way it’s a steal. The only downside is that the sole air carrier to the mountain towns is PIA, the government-owned airline of Pakistan where service is indifferent and your trip […] Read More
First communication breakdown: hot milk with my breakfast cornflakes. But if that’s the most I have to complain about on my first day in Islamabad, I have to say things are looking pretty good. My 27 hours of travel time took me from Boston to Washington DC to Doha, Qatar and finally to Pakistan, arriving in the middle of the night. I have only good things to say about Qatar Air, which has nice wide seats, Jet Blue-like entertainment options, and sweet little candies and warm hand towels passed around at every possible opportunity. During my trip I watched 3 sitcoms, one episode of “House,” the pilot of “Life on Mars,” an entire movie (Marley & Me), and read an entire book (Eat Pray Love). (Hey, it’s about an American woman in her 30s who travels abroad alone for a year and learns all sorts of important lessons. Seemed too obvious to pass up.) A quick note about this glut of entertainment. I figured it would be my last American TV for awhile, so I really ate it up. The episode of “House” was fantastic–it guest-starred Mira Sorvino as a scientist with a mysterious illness trapped at the South Pole–and I enjoyed the pilot of “Life on Mars” way more than I thought I would. It’s about a cop who gets into a car accident in 2008 and wakes up in 1973, only no one is surprised to see him there. He finds himself in utterly unfamiliar surroundings, and yet he is immediately presented with a complete set of useful things: an apartment, keys, a car, and a job, and everyone seems to know his […] Read More
It’s 4:00 am and the movers are coming in four hours. What’s the point of going to bed at this point? It seems especially useless since my bed is covered in piles of clothes and I’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight anyway. My instructions were to stack up everything I want shipped to Pakistan in a specific location and they would do the rest. (Which, I have to say, is the WAY to pack. How fantastic is not having to scrounge up boxes by hanging around the backdoor of the liquor store? I do not miss this.) So this is what a year in Pakistan looks like, in stuff. Plus all the clothes on the bed, of course. In the end I don’t think I did too badly. Fully 30% of what you see is non-perishable food items. I hit it hard at Trader Joe’s, Shaw’s, and Whole Foods to amass the pile of high quality snacks and absolute essentials you see before you. With it, I can make the following feasts for an ex-pat community hungry for non-naan: Mexican, Italian, Thai, Chinese, American, and Crunchy-Hippie-Vegan. (Note, for example, the Bragg’s Amino Acids. If you don’t know what that is, it just means you’re not crunchy hippie or vegan). I have mac & cheese to get me through those days of homesickness for the US, roasted red peppers to put on my famous zucchini pizza assuming I can ever find gouda in Pakistan, and Celtic Sea Salt because my naturopath told me iodized salt is from the devil. Most people send their couches, bookcases, and beds to their country of posting, I send food. […] Read More
I was just alerted to a devastating piece of news. From hulu.com: For now, Hulu is a U.S. service only. That said, our intention is to make Hulu’s growing content lineup available worldwide. This requires clearing the rights for each show or film in each specific geography and will take time. We’re encouraged by how many content providers have already been working along these lines so that their programs can be available over the Internet to a much larger, global audience. The Hulu team is committed to making great programming available across the globe. That’s right, no Hulu in Pakistan. Everyone knows what Hulu is, right? Maybe you saw that commercial for it where Alec Baldwin is an alien? Man, that Alec Baldwin is funny. Anyway, for those of you still watching shows on your tv, hulu.com is a website that lets you watch all sorts of shows and movies right away, on your own schedule, with limited commercials. I love it. On my original list of “reasons why not to move to Pakistan,” I didn’t add “missing a year’s worth of Lost, 30 Rock, and The Office” because I thought I had Hulu in my corner. I naively assumed that what’s available on the internet here would be available there. There’s a rumor that you can still watch shows on nbc.com overseas, but no such luck with any of the other channels. Seriously: what am I going to do about Lost? This is just the first of many surprises I imagine I will be encountering in the next few weeks as I move to another country. Speaking of surprises, I was surprised when I caused a security alert […] Read More
The contract was signed last Thursday. There was a 48-hour waiting period in which Congress could have rejected it; they didn’t. I still don’t know my departure date. I have a hangover. That about sums it up right now. I’ll celebrate later! […] Read More